PORTLAND, Ore. — Recognizing that buses are safer than vans for transporting children, Knowledge Learning Corp. (KLC), the largest provider of early childhood care and education programs, is aggressively replacing its vans with buses.

KinderCare Learning Centers is the largest and most widely known of the KLC family of schools, which also includes Knowledge Beginnings, Children’s World Learning Centers, Magic Years and Mulberry Child Care and Preschool.

The company comprises nearly 2,000 community-based centers, 775 before- and after-school programs and 123 employer-sponsored centers. It employs approximately 41,000 people.

Mike Lear, the senior director of fleet operations for KLC, said the company operates 2,300 buses and 1,400 vans to transport 30,000 to 35,000 students per day nationwide.

Lear said the company is trying to turn over the 1,400 vans in its fleet as soon as feasible. This year, it will replace 400 vans with buses and hopes to do the same in 2007.

KLC has a mixed fleet, with buses manufactured by Blue Bird Corp., Collins Bus Corp. and Thomas Built Buses. All of the buses are leased through a national leasing company in Baltimore called PHH.

Lear has set up an eight-year replacement schedule. Maintenance of the buses is outsourced by KLC’s various childcare centers, which serve more than 200,000 children in 39 states.

Drivers of the KLC buses, which range from 9- to 14-passenger capacity, aren’t required to obtain CDLs but are put through an in-house certification process.

Lear said the training includes both behind-the-wheel and classroom modules. Drivers also must pass criminal background and motor vehicle checks.

For the most part, KLC’s drivers are also the directors and assistant directors of the programs. “They spend an hour a day driving the buses and seven hours working with the children,” Lear said. “We don’t want to be in the transportation business. It’s incidental to what we do.”

Lear would prefer that school districts transport the children from the schools to the company’s facilities. That would relieve KLC of its transportation burden. He realizes, however, that school districts have tight budgets and other constraints on their transportation programs. “It just gets harder and harder each year,” he said.

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